Tag Archives: complementary medicine

Healing Hands: Physical Therapy for function, mobility, and comfort

I  have discovered a unique, highly effective form of physical therapy that combines the best elements of personal training with muscular therapy. Valerie Ruccia Eagan has developed her own brand of physical therapy that uses hands-on techniques, core- strengthening, and flexibility-building exercises, as well as mind-body energetic work. Her method cuts to the root of physical pain and mobility problems to provide deep and lasting healing.

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Filed under Aging, chronic illness, Chronic Pain, Healing, Marfan Syndrome

Healing the Soul: Shamanism and Psyche

Do you ever feel in the grip of anger, fear or sadness that are sometimes triggered by  seemingly trivial events? That perhaps well up in you from the depths of your childhood and are sometimes powerful enough to cause health problems related to stress and tension? Psychologist Ann Drake, PSy.D., opens her book, Healing of the Soul: Shamanism and Psyche (Revised edition,Busca Inc., NY. 2009) with a challenge to readers:

Join her in her struggle to understand mental and physical illness in new ways that lie outside of the Western way of understanding. She invites us to ponder existence from new and varied perspectives, to take what makes sense, validating it with our own internal wisdom, and, finally, to create our own meaning.

What are these new perspectives? They include seeing how energy, spirit, and psyche interface to create the unique psychological reality of each person. Drake is a scientifically trained practicing psychologist who has devoted her career to finding the connections between the conventional practice of psychotherapy and the ancient healing practices of Shamanism—which holds that the loss of part of one’s spiritual essence or soul, often happening as the result of childhood trauma, can result in psychological pain and even physical illness. For many years she has studied Shamanic practices with a Bomoh—an indigenous healer—in Borneo, bringing back new and deeper understanding and skills to add to her psychology practice.

While cognitive therapy focuses on the rational aspects of the mind, Shamanic healing enters a deeper, energy level. Describing powerful stories of healing the “inner worlds” of her clients, Drake says, “Many of us find ourselves stuck in images and feelings from childhood. These images and feelings create an energetic imprinting.  The hurtful, rageful words of a parent stick to a child’s energy field as if to Velcro, haunting the child [and persisting as the child grows into adulthood] with feelings of shame and inadequacy….” Blockages to the removal of this harmful energy persist in our habitual ways of thinking, says Drake. But Shamanic  work [which focuses on the flow of energy] can remove these blocks and restore the soul to wholeness and the body to health.

This book is an excellent introduction to the potential for deep healing and the alleviation of suffering by combining the science of psychology with the mysterious world of the soul.

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Filed under psychotherapy, Shamanism

The Medical System Gave Up On Me

In 1995 I woke up from routine heart valve surgery with the left side of my body paralyzed from a stroke caused by the surgery itself: A tiny piece of tissue had broken away from the valve, traveled through blood vessels and lodged in my brain, blocking the flow of blood with its essential supply of oxygen to the neurons that controlled movement on my left side. I was 43 years old, married, with two young children.

If I had obediently followed the prescribed role of stroke patient in the world of conventional medicine, I would be an invalid in a wheelchair today. Instead, I am back at work as a medical journalist, paying taxes instead of collecting social security.

I recovered because “adapting” to my disability — which is what the insurance company doctor (who had never met me) told me to do after two months of occupational and physical therapy — was not an acceptable option for me. I didn’t want to buy shoes with Velcro, buttonhole fasteners or devices to hold a tomato steady so I could slice it. I didn’t want to walk with a cane or use a wheelchair in the airport. And I certainly didn’t want to spend valuable recovery time learning to use adaptive devices.

During my recovery, the health providers whom I found most helpful were those who recognized the devastation and despair that I felt as the result of this physical calamity. They saw me not just as a patient, but also as a wife, mother, writer and even amateur musician. In their understanding I found the encouragement, strength and hope that I needed to fight back to recovery.

The doctors I found least helpful were those who saw me not as a whole person, but rather as a “stroke patient:” These included the neurologists who shrugged and said “wait and see” when I told them that they must be wrong: I needed my left arm and I needed to be able to walk; and the heart surgeon who breezed into my hospital room just long enough to say, “Sorry you stroked, but heart-wise you’re fine.”

I quickly learned that while the advances of modern surgery can save your life, the conventional medical system — along with the insurers who pay for it — is not set up for full recovery.  The goal of the system was to get me out of the hospital or rehabilitation facility and send me home. What happened after that was up to me. The insurance company doctor (the one who never met me) told me that I had “plateaued,” which meant that while I had made progress in physical and occupational therapy, there would probably be no further improvement. I was at an impasse and additional intervention would be counterproductive (not to mention expensive).

As a patient, it feels as if the health insurers and many doctors want us to accept and “adapt” to our disabilities — whether we are recovering from a heart attack or stroke, suffering from chronic illness or pain or trying to manage the difficulties of growing older.  It is easier to prescribe pills and adaptive devices than to help us take responsibility for our bodies and our health.

I chose to fight my way back to recovery, and this is a tough thing to do for those of us who are accustomed to seeing our doctors as omniscient beings who control our health.  I learned about methods of healing outside of mainstream conventional medicine,including Traditional Chinese Medicine, chich has used acupuncture for thousands of years to treat stroke patients . Yoga, from the equally ancient Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine, gave me strength, balance and peace of mind. The Alexander Technique — a powerful system of movement education — taught me to use my body with less effort and reduced pain. Pilates exercise coaxed my weakened muscles back to work and craniosacral therapy restored my body’s natural rhythms.

I was fortunate: I had the will, the family support, the research skills and the financial means to pursue unconventional healing methods. Fighting the system is much harder for those who don’t have the money, the knowledge of alternative therapies or the emotional strength to keep up the lonely struggle for recovery.  Too often, such people live with pain, disability and despair.

Doctors must understand what illness means in the lives of their patients. They must use their positions, their authority and their words wisely. They have the power to heal, but they also have the potential to destroy hope and, along with it, the chance to recover.


Filed under acupuncture, Alexander Technique, chronic illness, Chronic Pain, Doctors, Stories of Hope, stroke, Traditional Chinese Medicine

Strength and Serenity for Women With Cancer

In what appears to be a perfect union between Western academic medicine and complementary/alternative treatment, a Harvard Medical School oncologist is studying the use of acupuncture to help alleviate the symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment for women. Cancer specialist and surgeon Annekathryn Goodman, MD has added acupuncture certification to her many other credentials and now offers this complementary treatment to her patients undergoing cancer treatment at the Vincent Women’s Care Division of Massachusetts General Hospital.

“My personal vision is to create a center for women with cancer that I am calling ‘Strength and Serenity,’ says Dr. Goodman. “My goal is to use complementary modalities, particularly acupuncture, to alleviate the symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment that we have difficulty managing with Western medicine.” She has found the treatment helpful for alleviating neuropathy—pain or burning or numbness in hands and feet, as well as nausea from chemotherapy or radiation or from the cancer itself. “Sometimes I treat women before the chemo, which seems to lessen their suffering,” she says. “Acupuncture also seems to help people who are done with their therapy but still have side effects such as fatigue, depression and anxiety as well as neuropathy. So many people are on antidepressants to help them with their stress. Acupuncture seems to help alleviate symptoms.”

Since 2004, Dr. Goodman has been transforming a sterile  Mass General exam room into a tranquil environment for hour-long sessions of acupuncture, which uses tiny needles to stimulate energy or “qi” (pronounced “chi”) points on the body, based on 5,000-year-old methods from Traditional Chinese Medicine. She uses heat lamps to warm up the needles, replaces harsh fluorescent lights with softly glowing lamps, plays soothing music and adds bamboo shoots and fabrics as decoration. “My focus is to balance the patient’s energy, or life force,” says Dr. Goodman, “This treats the ‘root’ of the problem, which then helps to alleviate the ‘branch’ symptom, whether it is constipation, nausea, headache or depression.” (Please see How Do We Heal for more details of acupuncture.)

In a recent research collaboration among the Mass General Vincent Women’s Care Division, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Dana Farber Cancer Center, acupuncture was found to create a modest improvement in white blood cell counts among women undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer. (Cancer treatment tends to lower white blood cell counts, which compromises the immune system.) In a review of worldwide data about the use of acupuncture to alleviate side effects of cancer treatment, Dr. Goodman found that the evidence in support of acupuncture was “helpful but the data was mixed.” “It is hard to unify existing data in a scientific way,” she says. “But there is certainly interest around the world in studying the use of acupuncture to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients.” For her part, she hopes to continue the work of the Strength and Serenity Center to conduct education, research and clinical care not only about acupuncture, but also about other forms of complementary care for women with cancer.

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Filed under acupuncture, Cancer, depression, Healing, Health, Stories of Hope

Story of Hope: “All I wanted to do was hug my children.”

One Sunday morning in February 1997, Jacqueline Miller was standing on a  stool hanging curtains in her son’s room.  The last thing she remembers before she found herself covered in blood on the floor is beginning to get down off the stool.  “We figured out later that I must have lost my balance, “ she says.  “I had apparently hit my face — hard — on the corner of my son’s desk.”  The impact had severely injured her spinal cord in the area of her neck and she would need 150 stitches for the lacerations in her face.

Jackie’s spinal cord injury had transformed her in an instant from an outdoor enthusiast, scientist and mother of two young boys to someone who could not walk, turn a page or feed herself.  The prognosis was grim: Doctors told her that she would be permanently paralyzed below her waist, with minimal movement in her arms and hands.  “One of my doctors told me that the best recovery I could hope for was to be able to eventually shuffle 10 feet down the aisle — with a walker — at my son’s wedding,” says Jackie, adding quickly, “They were wrong.” When the extent of the traumatic injury finally sank in, Jackie was in shock and disbelieving.  “All I wanted to be able to do was hug my children,” she says.  “And I couldn’t even do that.”
Those who know Jackie best describe her resilience and determination, and these two qualities, along with her sense of humor, have helped her reclaim her life. She is back at work “more than” full-time and recently got back from a trip to Rome and Morocco with her husband. Her son called the donkey “Mom’s Moroccan wheelchair.” Read more of Jackie’s inspirational recovery here

— Here are pictures of Jackie on her trip; She had been told she would be  quadriplegic:


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Filed under Chronic Pain, Healing, Stories of Hope, Uncategorized

Healing Arts for Marfan and Chronic Pain

I recently helped to organize a Healing Arts workshop for the National Marfan Foundation annual meeting, which was held in Boson this year. More than 30 participants heard and asked questions of a panel of complementary/alternative practitioners who discussed managing the symptoms of Marfan syndrome—particularly chronic joint pain—with Tai chi, the Alexander Technique, acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), nutrition, and craniosacral therapy. Combining alternative treatments with conventional care is called “integrative medicine,” and putting together your own personal healing combination is an excellent way to take responsibility for your health. These healing modalities have applications for anyone suffering from chronic pain.

The workshop began with Tai chi and Alexander teacher Jamee Culbertson leading us in the opening movements and breathwork of a Tai chi form that is thousands of years old. Research has found that these ancient, graceful, meditative movements improve balance and reduce falls. As we breathed deeply and moved slowly in unison, the room seemed to transform into a kind of “sacred space,” as the group united with a shared purpose and energy. With two volunteers, Jamee then demonstrated how the Alexander Technique reduces pain and eases body movement through simple awareness of habitual actions that may be restricting activities. Both Tai chi and the Alexander Technique are gentle, non-invasive practices, and do not stress joints or ligaments.

Eurydice Hirsey, a trained chiropractor and craniosacral therapist, then talked about the use of craniosacral therapy to ease pain and improve movement by enhancing the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid. This is done through gentle touches on the head and sacrum, following the body’s own natural rhythms and movements, without force or pressure. While chiroporactic may not be indicated for most people with Marfan syndrome, the light touch of craniosacral therapy can ease tight muscles and reduce pain, even in those who have had spinal fusions, by focusing on other areas of the body where movement is possible.

Acupuncturist and researcher Stephen Cina shared his orthopedic investigations into the nature of connective tissue and its possible relationship to the meridians (energy pathways) used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. A practitioner either inserts tiny needles into “points” on the skin that correspond to the energy meridians (the needles are usually painless), or applies pressure with the hands (acupressure) on these same spots, in order to reduce pain. And naturopathic intern Amanda Daeges–who has Marfan syndrome, talked about maintaining integrity of connective tissue through what we eat and drink: specifically whole foods and whole grains that include nutrients and trace minerals. She also stressed the importance of drinking enough water. (Divide your body weight in half to find out how many ounces of water you should drink each day.)

All of these complementary modalities (and many more) are described in detail here, has well as profiles of practitioners and personal experience stories.

VERY important: Before you try any complementary/alternative practices, always check with your doctor.


Filed under acupuncture, Alexander Technique, Chronic Pain, Health, Marfan Syndrome, Tai Chi, Traditional Chinese Medicine

Yoga for PTSD in a Military Hospital

How progressive of the US military to use yoga as a treatment for soldiers returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder. As reported in the May 6 Washington Post, the Specialized Care Program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center focuses on helping service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan cope with the flashbacks and nightmares typical of post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects 20 percent of the approximately 1.6 million U.S. military personnel who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to a Rand study released last month. The program uses a guided meditation technique called yoga nidra, which I know from personal experience to create a profound state of relaxation.


Filed under Healing, Health, mental health, Uncategorized, Yoga

Paying for alternative treatments

Research is increasingly demonstrating the effectiveness of certain complementary/alternative treatments such as acupuncture, massage, tai chi, yoga, meditation and biofeedback for chronic pain, reduced mobility and other ailments. Why then are more insurance companies not paying for them? I think more of us need to “vote with our feet” by demanding coverage for proven alternative treatments and switching to insurance companies that pay for them. We and the health care system will all benefit. As one study found, support for lifestyle changes that prevent disease is far cheaper than hospitalization and expensive pills!


Filed under acupuncture, Chronic Pain, Health, Tai Chi

Cold, Happy Half Bath

“Traditionally, cold sitzbaths — also called happy half baths — have been recommended against hemorrhoids, varicose veins and infertility (of both sexes),” says board-certified internist and expert in European Natural Medicine Alexa Fleckenstein, MD. “Taken in the evening, they work against insomnia. Done regularly, they promote immune health and disease resistance, similar to cold showers. I take mine because I want to emulate the wonderful feeling I have when I swim in the cold waters of Maine in the summer; my cold sitzbath in the morning leaves me with the same elation and freshness, geared for another strenuous day.”

The name “sitzbath” is a halfway translation from German into English: The original word is “Sitzbad”. “Sitz” means “to sit” and “bad” is “bath”. Dr. Fleckenstein advises that a cold sitzbath should not be done for more than a few seconds. You should not feel cold afterward – just energized and really warm within a few minutes. And never do any cold water treatment on a cold body – Rule Number One in all hydrotherapy. “Let cold water run into a clean bathtub – two to three inches is enough,” says Dr. Fleckenstein. “Sit. Don’t forget to splash – it’s fun! Get out and towel off. That’s all. Some hardy people recommend skipping the toweling in the evening and going into bed wet, promoting sleepiness.”

While sitzbaths have a long tradition in European Natural Medicine, there is not much sound research evidence. “However,” says Dr. Fleckenstein, “my patients have benefited. As is the case with many natural therapies, studies have not been done because there’s no money to be made. Nobody can make a buck if I sit for a few seconds in cold water in my tub!”

Contraindications from Dr. Fleckenstein: “Don’t do a cold sitzbath during an acute urinary tract infection, acute back pain and any acute disease. And always check with your doctor first.”

For more information on cold, warm and hot baths, see her book, Health20.


Filed under cold shower health benefits, Healing, Health, Water

Restoring the Rhythm of the Body

If your health problems include chronic pain in your joints or back, headaches, or ear infections, you might benefit from a craniosacral therapy — after consultation with your doctor, of course. During a session of craniosacral therapy, you lie on your back, fully clothed, on a cushioned table. As the practitioner places her hands under your back on the connection between your head and neck, there is no sensation of “forcing” a movement. “I try to detect and focus on the deepest reservoir of the body, below the ‘radar’ of the conscious mind and even of the muscle,” says Dr. Eurydice Hirsey in Own Your Health—Pain: back pain, arthritis, migraines, joint pain and more, by Adam Perlman, MD, MPH. “I often just follow the body’s own impulse, gently helping it to undo the resistance in its own way, without pushing on the muscles or joints,” says Dr. Hirsey, a chiropractor who is also trained in craniosacral therapy. “This is how craniosacral work differs from chiropractic or even massage, where the practitioner might force or create a change in the body. It is the patient’s own response to the practitioner’s gentle touch that provides the release.”

When the muscle resistance does finally relax, the sensation is one of deep release from a tension you might not have been aware of. “For some people this can be an enormous, sometimes volcanic release,” said Dr. Hirsey. “They may cry, laugh or feel anger, often depending on whether the physical restriction in the body came from an emotional trauma.”

Craniosacral therapy, which can be performed by other practitioners, such as chiropractors, massage therapists, nurses and physical therapists, grew out of the system of osteopathy and treats the central nervous system and its relationship to the spinal cord in a similar way. Practitioners say that craniosacral “rhythm” within the body comes from the regular pulsing of the liquid — called cerebrospinal fluid — that bathes, nourishes and protects the spinal cord. It is through the regular pulses of the cerebrospinal fluid that the brain transmits nerve messages to keep the body alive and functioning.

Blockages or restrictions in the craniosacral fluid can result from tension in the muscles or “fascia,” the tissue just under the skin that overlies muscle and some organs, like a kind of inner “sleeve,” says Dr. Hirsey. “As I place my hands on the spine and head of my patient, I can often feel enormous resistance to the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, caused by blockages in the tissue,” she explains. “Any injury or trauma that alters or minimizes the flow of this fluid can cause pain and have a negative effect on our well-being and health.”

No matter who the practitioner is, the most important component in effective treatment is that the practitioner take into account the condition of the entire body, and that the technique is never used to replace necessary conventional treatment.

What’s the Evidence?
No controlled trials of craniosacral therapy seem to exist, according to one author, Dr. Edzard Ernst, who surveyed the literature, pointing out that Dr. Upledger himself, an osteopathic physician who developed the technique, does not cite them in his own writing. “Even though small movements between cranial bones are possible, there is no good evidence to suggest that restrictions of these movements have any health related relevance,” writes Ernst. -Ernst, Edzard, ed. The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An evidence-based approach. Harcourt Publishers Limited 2001. P. 48.

However, practitioners, patients and parents claim that the technique is beneficial for problems such as birth trauma, chronic pain, cerebral dysfunction, cerebral palsy, colic, depression, dyslexia, ear infections, headaches, learning disabilities, Méniere’s disease, musculoskeletal problems, migraine, sinusitis and stroke. Young children are believed to respond particularly well. Personally, I have found regular craniosacral treatments helpful in dealing with the chronic musculoskeletal pain of Marfan Syndrome.


Filed under children's health, Chronic Pain, cold shower health benefits, ear infections, Headache, Healing, Health, Marfan Syndrome